ROME, Aug. 22, 2012 -- Consolata Melis, whose family has been officially declared the longest-living family in the world, celebrates her 105th birthday today, and it's a party in her small remote hill town on the island of Sardinia.
Four of Melis' eight siblings -- three brothers and five sisters -- are in their 90s, three are in their 80s and "la piccolina" (the little one) is 78. On June 10, all nine a combined age of 818 years, 205 days, and received a certificate from the Guinness World Records for "highest combined age, nine living siblings." It took years of research to establish that the Melis' family holds that title.
Melis' family, a crowd made up of her siblings, nine children, 24 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren, gathers for a private celebration at her home this evening to share a large cake topped with candles.
Perdasdefogu, the remote town in the region of Ogliastra where they live, has about 2,000 inhabitants and is set in the wild Mediterranean-brush hills of inland Sardinia. Long life is no novelty to these parts. The Ogliastra region has the highest concentration of centenarians on the island, where there are 370 residents older than 100, or 23 for every 100,000 inhabitants.
The town's mayor, Mariano Carta, delivered a bunch of roses and a silver rosary to Melis this morning. "She seemed very happy today and in great form," he told ABCNews.com, and although she needs assistance when walking, is "absolutely lucid."
Melis, dressed head to foot in traditional black clothing and headscarf, now spends most of her time reading a worn prayer book she was given a long time ago by a missionary father, but she has always kept a wicked sense of humor, Carta said. "Make love every Sunday" she says with a wink when people ask her for her secret to long life.
Researchers searching for clues to the elixir of long-life in these lands have studied these ancient island communities for years now, and most conclude the secret lies in a mix of factors: genetic make-up, diet and environment, and a sense of belonging to a community.
Luca Deiana at the University of Sassari on the island has studied the statistics and personal data of people living all over the island. "The only thing one can really say now is that the secret to long life does not depend just on one factor," he told La Republica newspaper. "Genetics are important. This we know because longevity is inherited. We can see that the last names of the over- 100-year-olds on the island are often the same, but then there are other factors, like the goodness of the land and its produce, like the pears and the plums, which have properties that can contribute to long life."
Carta agreed. "Certainly genes matter, but then there is our quality of life, the tranquility, relaxed behavior and very wholesome, simple local food." He said that diet has a lot to do with longevity. "Sardinia is famous for very good but very simple cuisine ... no elaborate recipes and complicated cooking methods, and little use of spices and sauces."
But the mayor says some people believe long life comes from an easy life, but that's not so, he said. "These were very remote towns until recently, with no electricity. The road to the city was only paved about 30 years ago. These people had a really hard and poor life working the land."
Over the years, six members of the Melis' family have lost their spouses, and some of the children have died. Most members of the family now spend their days at home surrounded by children and grandchildren. But all still keep active and are familiar figures in town.
Adolfo returned to Perdasdefogu after World War II and set up the main bar in 1958, where, at the age of 89, he still works. Claudina, who just turned 99, attends morning Mass every day, ever present in her spot in the front row pew. Her doctor has tried, timidly, to give her medicine, but she has always refused, telling La Republica, "I only have one illness, old age, and nobody can cure that!"
Consolata Melis, who received little schooling and speaks in the Sardinian dialect, said, "In my time women had to wash clothes in the river. My granddaughters have washing machines and dishwashers," she told the newspaper Correre Della Sera. When I hear this new word 'stressed,' I just don't understand."